North Korea ignored South Korea’s offer of COVID-19 aid for a second day on Tuesday as North Korean leader Kim Jong-un decides how to combat surging “fevers” in his nation of 26 million while preserving his power base at home.
Analysts say the COVID-19 outbreak — which comes after Pyongyang long denied it had any cases at all of the global pandemic — presents a particular health problem because of the North’s primitive public health network and its refusal to accept international offers of vaccines. The fact that Mr. Kim is now openly acknowledging the deadly “fever” sweeping his country is seen as a sign that a true public health crisis could be emerging.
The Ministry of Unification in Seoul has been trying since Monday to offer vaccines, masks and tests to its reclusive neighbor, but Pyongyang isn’t accepting the message.
“As North Korea is aware of our stance on cooperation in disease prevention, our government will wait for the North’s response without pressing it,” an official told the Yonhap News Agency.
The wire service said the South might route assistance through international agencies. So far, Mr. Kim has rebuffed vaccines from global alliances such as COVAX, leaving much of his population unprotected.
“There are numerous political considerations as to why the North has not accepted the message yet; we need to think of ways to provide assistance through international organizations or nongovernmental aid in case we end up not providing it directly,” Unification Minister Kwon Young-se said.
North Korean officials acknowledged the COVID-19 outbreak last week after two years of insisting the virus never breached its borders. More than 50 people have died so far and an estimated 1.5 million have been sickened, though it is difficult to get accurate numbers from Pyongyang.
North Korea’s official KCNA news service claimed Tuesday all sectors of society were mobilizing to fight the pandemic, hinting that Pyongyang was using China’s tough but controversial “zero-COVID” approach, including border closures and extensive quarantining programs.
“Emergency epidemic prevention organs across the country have directed primary efforts to raising the public awareness on the importance of disinfection in checking and eliminating the source of epidemic,” according to the KCNA dispatch. “They have also taken practical measures to thoroughly disinfect every working and living areas. … Meanwhile, medical workers across the country have turned out as one in the work to thoroughly quarantine persons with fever and abnormal symptoms and take steps for strengthening medical supervision and giving proactive treatment, fully aware of the importance of intensively examining the health of all inhabitants.”
But Mr. Kim faces both a political and a public health challenge. He wants to prevent the virus from spiraling out of control but also wants to maintain North Korea’s image as a self-sufficient nation.
Experts told the Associated Press that Mr. Kim would likely accept help from China, Pyongyang‘s only significant ally, but do so in an informal, unpublicized manner to preserve national pride.
Mr. Kim faces “a really huge dilemma,” Lim Eul-chul, a professor at Kyungnam University’s Institute for Far Eastern Studies in Seoul, told the wire service. “If he accepts U.S. or Western assistance, that can shake the self-reliance stance that he has steadfastly maintained and public confidence in him could be weakened.”
Compounding his problem is the fact that many health experts say a major military parade last month in Pyongyang, meant to showcase the North’s new weapons could emerge as a “superspreader” event that exacerbated the outbreak. Mr. Kim socialized freely during the gathering, and only afterward was shown for the first time wearing a protective mask.
And it’s not clear what the secretive regime needs now or how to get it there. Some outside experts say a crash vaccination program is vital while others say that treating those who are getting sick should be the priority.
North Korean officials are scrambling to contain the crisis even as a new conservative administration takes office in Seoul and President Biden is slated to meet with new President Yook Suk Yeol in the South Korean capital at the end of the week.
• This article was based in part on wire service reports.
For more information, visit The Washington Times COVID-19 resource page.